Op-Ed: After the French 9/11, Le Patriot Act

A French serviceman stands guard outside the Notre Dame Cathedral as people queue to attend a church service on Dec. 25 in Paris.

A French serviceman stands guard outside the Notre Dame Cathedral as people queue to attend a church service on Dec. 25 in Paris.

(Miguel Medina / AFP/Getty Images)

LYON, France — The visible signs of change here at the merciful close of France’s annus horribilis are subtle to the American eye. Travelers arriving by air from other European countries no longer encounter an automatic “hurry along” at the passport booth. More tricolors than usual are draped across apartment buildings. The rifle-gripping soldiers walking slowly through the shopping promenades look decidedly alert and grim.

Oh, and the prime minister announced last week that he wants to rewrite the constitution to fight terrorism.

Those Americans who wish that the United States had acted a bit more Gallic in the mad aftermath of Sept. 11 may want to track recent developments across the pond.


Washington has bent the Constitution wherever it could since 2001, but our document is far less pliable and far more subject to robust judicial defense.

Yes, we launched the disastrous Iraq war (over noisy French objections), petulantly renamed our Capitol frites and created a vast, secret surveillance state while constantly lying about it. Excepting the freedom fries, these are not small things.

But imagine a Bush or Obama administration unchecked by the Bill of Rights or by Article 5 — which sets the bar high for altering the Constitution — and you’ll begin to understand the situation in France today.

After the November attacks, the French government approved extraordinary measures constraining civil liberties. To extend these measures permanently in the constitution, all the government requires is a three-fifths majority when Parliament meets again in February.

France’s current state of emergency is already a doozy — warrantless searches, preemptive house arrests (more than 300 so far, without any convictions or involvement by a judge), plus the authority to shut down websites deemed as “promoting terrorism or inciting terrorist acts.”

To this illiberal list, Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Dec. 23 added a controversial new item: the ability to strip French citizenship from dual nationals “who have been sentenced by a judge for committing crimes against the nation, which include terrorist crimes.”


What, exactly, is a crime against the nation? It’s not hard to imagine final language making French citizens subject only to hostile regimes they may have fled, for crimes that fall in a totally different category than the horror perpetrated at the Bataclan theater in November.

Though opposed by many politicians from the governing Socialist Party, the de-citizening amendment is a center-right favorite and widely considered a shoo-in come February.

Yes, Washington has bent the Constitution wherever it could since 2001, but our document is far less pliable and far more subject to robust judicial defense. The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down post-9/11 laws and practices championed by the executive branch. Civil libertarians may feel perpetually besieged, but at least we win some.

Sadly, America’s political class seems eager to follow where France now treads. Sen. Ted Cruz is the primary sponsor of the Expatriate Terrorist Act, which would strip nationality from Americans determined to have given “material assistance” to terrorist organizations.

Lest anyone think this is a GOP-only idea, Hillary Clinton in 2010 was eager to take a “hard look” at her friend Joe Lieberman’s similarly worded Terrorist Expatriation Act, telling the New York Times that “People who are serving foreign powers — or in this case, foreign terrorists — are clearly in violation, in my personal opinion, of that oath which they swore when they became citizens.”

Clinton also has an unfortunately Parisian outlook about censoring American social media sites. “They cannot permit the recruitment and the actual direction of attacks or the celebration of violence,” the Democratic favorite declared this month on ABC’s “This Week.” “They’re going to have to help us take down these announcements and these appeals.”

The other major-party front-runner, Donald Trump, is even more derisive when it comes to mocking those who point out that, hey, terrorism is terrible but we have this 1st Amendment thingie designed to prevent Great Men from calling Google’s Sergey Brin and asking him to shut down the Internet.

“Somebody will say, ‘Oh, freedom of speech, freedom of speech,’” Trump said at a Dec. 7 rally. “These are foolish people.”

Our republic, and associated liberties, will survive even this deeply stupid presidential campaign, in part because our founding document — heavy with checks and balances — is designed to thwart the authoritarian fantasies of all those do-something politician.

France? The only real restraints on government authority are the perennially shambolic public finances and perpetually surly public opinion, which is always one massive street protest away from blocking any grand scheme emanating from the Élysée Palace. But the governing Socialists, normally aligned with the grumbling proletariat, might fear populist resentment almost as much as another terrorist attack.

Last month, Socialists and the center-right effectively colluded to prevent a surging National Front — France’s long-standing party of Trumpist nationalism — from winning in the second round of regional elections. Prime Minister Valls, among others, warned that a National Front victory could trigger a “civil war.” There are few such tricks left in the mainstream’s bag to keep this rising political force from achieving democratic representation.

Which leads us to a once-inconceivable question: What happens when you give sweeping, emergency police powers to a party long feared as Europe’s vanguard of the “extreme right”?

Thank God, and the Constitution, that we don’t have this problem in America. Yet.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and a contributing writer to Opinion.

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